The Hero & The Ghost: An Account of a Divided Family

ECW welcomes David T. Dixon

When the Civil War splits a Georgia family, a returning veteran secures his legacy and helps to bury shameful secrets for future generations…

Connor Wright remembered that he was eleven years old when he watched Yankee soldiers steal up through the backyard and surprise his father. Edwin Wright, home on furlough from the Confederate Cavalry, was captured and taken away. Connor heard rumors that his father later died in a northern prison. Others said he was killed while attempting to escape. In any case, Connor never heard from him again.[1]

 Countless Southern families remembered their tragic heroes with similar stories passed down for posterity. Edwin Wright’s family, however, rarely spoke of him after the war. By the time his grandchildren had grown, no one seemed to remember much about the man who had vanished.[2]

 The disappearance of Edwin Wright vexed his descendants for generations. Clues lay dormant in the tortured consciences of war survivors. Devastated Southerners faced an anguishing question: Had their political leaders really sacrificed so many lives and achieved nothing? Doubts lingered, memories were reshaped, and eventually, a more comforting version of the war emerged. Southern writers transformed ordinary Confederate soldiers into revolutionary heroes battling overwhelming odds for the noble but doomed cause of states’ rights.[3]

Connor Wright and his family constructed their own Lost Cause mythology, concocting various accounts of their father’s activities during the conflict. Stories they improvised were designed to avoid an embarrassing fact. Edwin Wright left his family and went north voluntarily.

Edwin Wright’s defection was difficult to admit, considering his wife’s connections to the Confederacy. Harriett Connor Wright lost one brother early in the war, but younger brother Wesley Connor survived four years of Confederate service. The family welcomed Wesley back as a hero while conspiring to keep Edwin Wright’s story a secret.

Wesley Olin Connor and Edwin A. Wright came from old Southern families of wealth and privilege. Wesley’s father was a respected physician in Edgefield County, South Carolina. Dr. Connor sent eight-year-old Wesley and his sister Cornelia to Cave Spring to live with their sister Harriett soon after she married Edwin Wright in 1848. After Wesley’s own father committed suicide, Edwin became his father figure.[4]

Edwin Wright was the youngest son of a wealthy Georgia planter. He and his brother Moses studied law at Franklin College, following in the footsteps of oldest brother, Judge Augustus R. Wright. After their father died, the two younger brothers quit college and purchased adjoining lots near Cave Spring, just southwest of Rome.[5]

As the South lurched towards secession, public opinion in Georgia was split evenly. All three Wright brothers supported the Union. Augustus R. Wright tried to use his influence as a U.S. Congressman to deter Georgia from leaving the Union; but finally agreed to support his state, hoping that he could “scotch the rebellion from within.”[6]

Edwin and Moses Wright were angry with their older brother and vowed never to support the Confederacy. Wesley Conner ignored their counsel and joined the Cherokee Artillery in June 1861. Neighbors chose sides, destinies diverged, and the dearest of family relations faced the prospect of becoming mortal enemies.[7]

Political divisions at home troubled Wesley Connor. Large slaveholders like Edwin and Moses Wright were exempt from conscription during the first few years of the conflict. Community tensions grew as volunteer soldiers were wounded and killed, while numerous able-bodied slaveholders rode out the war on their plantations.[8]

While Wesley Connor dodged Minie balls, Augustus Wright served in the Confederate Congress, raised a regiment, and contributed four sons to the rebel army. After two years of carnage, Augustus became critical of fellow government leaders and accused them of trampling citizen rights. In private, he questioned his decision to go with his state out of the Union.[9]

Augustus Wright convinced his brothers to hide from conscript agents. In February 1864, he introduced a measure to reconstruct the Union in the Confederate House of Representatives. It created a sensation. Fearing for his safety, Augustus left Richmond and returned to Georgia. Later that year he served as an intermediary between General William T. Sherman and Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown.[10]

Further intrigue was afoot when Wesley Connor visited the Edwin Wright homestead in early October. Edwin’s brother Moses fled north a week later. Augustus then embarked upon a scheme to transport cotton north from Rome, sell it, and use the profits to settle his brothers and their families in Ohio. His safe conduct north was arranged by General Sherman, who had his own plans for Augustus Wright.[11]

 Sherman had convinced Augustus Wright to meet with President Lincoln in a last-ditch effort to return Georgia to the Union. Despite a week of meetings, the peace plan went nowhere. In January 1865, Augustus arranged for Edwin to flee north to Cincinnati, where he enlisted in the Union Army for three years.[12]

Wesley Connor visited Cave Spring again two weeks later.[13] He met with Augustus Wright, who shared details of his failed peace mission.   After visiting Moses Wright’s family, Wesley expressed doubts. “What am I to gain? Who or what am I struggling for? Are not Liberty and Independence myths? If I fall, who outside of my immediate relations will miss me? Who will thank me for periling my life?”[14] Nevertheless, Connor returned to his command in late March 1865. Weeks later, Moses Wright, who stubbornly clung to his own principles, died in exile in Louisville, Kentucky.[15]

 When the war ended, Connor was a prisoner at Camp Chase, Ohio, where he eventually swore the Oath of Allegiance and headed home.[16] Harriett Wright was glad to have her brother back. She had a newborn baby and three other children to care for. Most of the family slaves had run off. While Wesley toiled in the fields, Edwin Wright transferred to the headquarters of the Provost Guard. In April, 1866, he deserted and was never heard from again.[17]

Wesley worried that Confederate soldiers would be forgotten. “We cannot honor the fallen heroes as we would wish,” he lamented. “The names of those illustrious men who have fallen for liberty, must perish with the present generation.” “God forbid that I should ever believe that we were wrong,” he fretted, “and our punishment was sent for endeavoring to break up the best Government the world ever saw?”[18] He vowed “to instill to the minds of my children, if I should have any, the righteousness of our cause, and bind them to do the same with theirs to future generations.”[19]

While Wesley and other Confederate veterans ensured their part in the war would always be remembered, the photographs, letters, and family keepsakes of Edwin Wright simply disappeared. As the myth of the Lost Cause grew to epic proportions in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, stories of Union men like Edwin Wright were buried. A quarter century passed before an opportunity arose to rewrite the history of this phantom, and thus reclaim a so-called “traitor” and deserter from his haunts in the family tree.

The opportunity to reinvent Edwin Wright came in March 1891 when Judge Augustus Wright died, taking with him many secrets of the family’s support of the Union during the Civil War. Up to that time, Edwin Wright’s real story was just a deposition away. Four months after the death of Augustus, Edwin’s widow applied for a Confederate pension.

Harriett Wright’s application was met with considerable skepticism by Georgia authorities. She claimed that Edwin had been captured in January 1865. This date was crossed out later and changed to October 25, 1864. Three witnesses claimed to have served in the same unit as Wright, yet no service records existed to support this assertion. The state insisted that Harriett prove Edwin Wright died in the war, did not desert, and did not swear the Oath of Allegiance. She had no such evidence.

Harriett reapplied for a pension a year later, and submitted the deposition of her son, Connor Wright.  She claimed a December 1864 date for her husband’s capture, which conflicted with her son’s testimony. She then produced a fifth witness who repeated her story nearly verbatim. With all three Wright brothers dead, the only other surviving adult with intimate knowledge of these circumstances was Harriett’s brother, Wesley Connor. As a respected Confederate veteran, he should have been her star witness.

Wesley Connor’s terse testimony sounds distant and detached: “The within statement corresponds to that given me by Mrs. H.A. Wright while I was at home on furlough in January & February 1865.” He did not attempt to verify the truth of his sister’s statements, nor those of her witnesses. He simply confirmed that she had not changed her story. The pension was denied.[20]

What Wesley did not say spoke volumes. Like Augustus Wright, he certainly knew more, but what he knew would only hurt Harriett’s case, so he said nothing. His silence ensured that the ghost of Edwin Wright would lie undisturbed for generations to come.[21]

David T. Dixon likes nothing better than speaking to historical societies, libraries, museums, and conferences across the country. Dave uncovers little-known historical figures with compelling stories and presents them in a lively, engaging style. Visit his author website: http://www.davidtdixon.com/

Endnotes

[1]Application of Mrs. H.A. Wright, Confederate Pension Applications, Georgia Confederate Pension Office, RG 58-1-1, Georgia Archives. Hereinafter cited as “H.A. Wright Pension”.

[2] Connor Wright Hollingsworth, The Mystery of Edwin A. Wright (Privately published, 1981). Anne Willingham Willis, A Family History (Rome, GA., 1946), 113-136.

[3] William C. Davis, The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1996). David M. Blight, Race and Reunion (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The  Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2001).

[4] Hollingsworth, Margaret Wright, Family Life and Ancestry of Tillie Rich and Connor Wright of Cave Spring, Georgia (Privately published, 2006).

[5] Willingham, A Family History.

[6]A.R. Wright (Hereinafter cited as “ARW”) to Mary Wright Shropshire (Hereinafter cited as “MWS”), October 14, 1863,  Beulah Shropshire Moseley Family Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Hereinafter cited as “Mosely Family Papers”.

[7] Testimony of Elizabeth H. Wright, October 19, 1873, claim of Elizabeth H. Wright, Records of the Southern Claims Commission (Allowed Claims), Floyd County, Georgia, RG 217, National Archives, Washington, D.C.. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation “SCC” for this source.

[8] Wesley O. Connor family papers, MS 3102. Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, The University of Georgia Libraries (Hereinafter “Connor Diary”).

[9] For a comprehensive discussion of the wartime activities of A.R.Wright, see David T. Dixon, “Augustus R. Wright and the Loyalty of the Heart,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly XCIV (Fall 2010)342-371.

[10] Resolution of A.R. Wright in the Confederate Congress, February 4, 1864, in Rome Tri-Weekly Courier, February 11, 1864.

[11] Testimony of Isabel Towns, William B. Towns, Augustus R. Wright, William A. Wright, Louisa Towns, 1878, claim of Isabel Towns, SCC, Floyd County, Georgia.

[12] William T. Sherman, Memoirs of Gen. W.T. Sherman, 4th ed., two vols. (New York., 1891), II, 137-142. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1880-1901), series I, volume 39, pt.2, 395, 396, 501, 514,542 and Volume 39, pt. 3, page 412. Register of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M233); Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s-1917, Record Group 94; National Archives, Washington, D.C., roll 30, January 1865.

[13] Connor Diary, January 29, 1865.

[14] Connor Diary, February17and 18, 1865.

[15] Connor Diary, March 19, 1865. Testimony of Augustus R. Wright, October 19, 1873, claim of Elizabeth H. Wright, SCC, Floyd County, Georgia

[16] Connor Diary, April 28 to June 19, 1865.

[17]Returns from Regular Army Infantry Regiments, June 1821–December 1916. NARA microfilm publication M665, roll 20, May 1866.

[18] Connor Diary, August 2, 1865 and November 25, 1866.

[19] Connor Diary, August 5, 1867.

[20] H.A. Wright Pension.

[21] J.C. Harris, “W O. Connor -Brief Sketch of His Life,” The School Helper Newsletter (Cave Spring, Georgia: Georgia School for the Deaf, March 1, 1920).

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4 Responses to The Hero & The Ghost: An Account of a Divided Family

  1. Bruce says:

    Very interesting, thank you.

  2. George Slaton says:

    Thank you for sharing this story of fraught loyalties. Situations like this were common during the Rev War as well.

  3. Matthew J. Waters says:

    Great article!

  4. Thanks folks. Look for more original research on divided loyalties in Georgia in upcoming posts.

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